Sarajevo 2023 review: La Palisiada (Philip Sotnychenko)

La Palisiada is a work of immense originality and steadfast courage, a powerful artistic statement that is willing to be both provocative and off-kilter.”

What exactly is “la palisiada”, which is the central mystery of this film? Some say it is an ethereal concept, others claim it is a figure of speech. The audience is none the wiser to the meaning of a supposedly simple idea with which several people inside the world of this film seem to be familiar. Those venturing into La Palisiada, the fascinating debut by Philip Sotnychenko, should be given a clear warning: this is not a film that ever aims to make sense, instead pledging allegiance to a jagged, perhaps even chaotic, style of storytelling. Narratives overlap and philosophy begins to combine with social structure and psychological despair to create this indescribably odd film that is one of the more intriguing projects of the past year. A film that proves that all art is inherently political, although there are very few explicitly political statements to be found in it, but rather they exist as the undercurrent of the narrative. La Palisiada is formed from a number of disparate concepts working together in tandem to create a meaningful and provocative portrait of Ukrainian identity, political structure and social conventions. The story sets out to capture a very specific moment in the nation’s past, which it uses as an extended metaphor for later developments, even if these correlations are found embedded beneath the surface, rather than actively forming part of the narrative. A daring but compelling choice by the director, who approaches familiar material from a place of pure creativity and cinematic rebellion, which is precisely what we have grown to expect from such filmmakers.

Much of La Palisiada is formed from the narrative, which is inarguably bordering on chaotic, since there are many different ideas presented and we are constantly asked (or at least encouraged) to broaden our perspective in the hopes of making sense of these concepts. The plot shifts between two major storylines, and it is not entirely clear how they are connected or why they are being shown alongside one another. Yet there is clearly a method to the madness as the director focuses on exploring this material, which ultimately comes down to a series of conversations on identity and existence, two broad themes which develop a sense of further complexity when we start to see the correlations between them as the film progresses. Unfortunately, we are never sure whether our understanding of these ideas is accurate since the director intentionally keeps his intentions vague – but an argument can be made that this ambiguity contributes to the overall tone of the film, which draws on various strands of peculiarity in order to make some unique statements on human nature, delivered in an unorthodox and slightly disturbing manner. This immediately makes La Palisiada a film that courts controversy in several different ways, yet still remains oddly elegant and stoic in its approach, which is built around Ukraine’s checkered past and uncertain future as seen through the perspectives of a number of offbeat characters that make up this ensemble.

Sotnychenko’s background as an editor is very evident throughout La Palisiada, which is a film cobbled together from fragments of ideas. The narrative is interesting, but where this film truly comes together is in the filming and editing process, with the director being keenly aware of how cinematic language is not only verbal, but comes through in multifaceted ways. He is certainly not the first director to prioritize the image over the spoken word or written text, but Sotnychenko does make a concerted effort to blend various ideas together to create a broader cinematic experience, which is abundantly clear in every frame. Stylistically, this film is quite an achievement – it is filmed almost entirely on what looks like old video, with the grainy look creating a distinct atmosphere, making it seem like footage plucked from the archives, pulled from obscurity and delivered to us without any sense of explicit discourse. La Palisiada looks like a faded home movie, the style working with the storyline to create a sense of authenticity, almost as if we are peering into the lives of these characters, looking upon their daily routines with a voyeuristic fascination. While we have come across this approach in the past, it was rarely with this level of detail in terms of both bold ideas and the audacious execution of these themes, which occur in tandem as we try to unravel the various peculiar layers that govern the film.

La Palisiada is not an easy film, nor is it one that ever seems to make much sense on its own (once we engage with what the filmmakers had to say about the project, their intentions become more evident) – but it is still a fascinating work that beguiles and disturbs in equal measure. This is a film composed of disjointed images and discordant sounds, and whether or not this is effective or an exercise in perseverance is a matter of interpretation. However, it serves as an astonishing introduction to Sotnychenko, who immediately establishes himself as someone we should watch closely, as he is a singular talent and one of the most exciting voices in contemporary European cinema. This film dares to go in search of something not only indescribable, but perhaps even intangible – it takes some effort to make sense of everything, and even after we think that we have gotten a firm grasp on its ideas, Sotnychenko surprises us with another layer that complicates our understanding and subverts whatever expectations we may have formed in the process. La Palisiada is a work of immense originality and steadfast courage, a powerful artistic statement that is willing to be both provocative and off-kilter, which is not a combination we usually associate with the art of rebellion, but which is found throughout this intense experimental drama that plays on our psychology and understanding of familiar concepts that have never felt so bewildering and captivating until explored in this context.